by Charles Sharpe
Review : Social Care and Child Welfare in Ireland Integrating Residential Care, Leaving Care, And After Care
£34.95 ISBN 978-1-908308-74-0 Paperback/September 2015/414 pages
The publisher’s pre-publication promotional literature for this book claims that it
addresses the major issue of social care and child welfare in the twenty-first century, and in particular the imperative to integrate residential child care, leaving care and aftercare in order to achieve a congruent system of care.
It does all these things,. It is a thoroughly researched, well-argued and very readable book, written by an author who has a vision of a seamless social care service for children, young people and care leavers.
The author, Maurice Fenton, has worked at all levels in residential care, trainee to director, within the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. He founded Empower Ireland in 2009 to support care leavers in Ireland, and is an independent advisor and researcher with a particular interest in mentoring and social justice.
In my view he is also a scholar, but first and foremost he is an insightful social care worker who is intensely passionate about his profession. He has written a comprehensive book. It covers just about everything about residential child care, leaving care and aftercare. It champions successful intervention but it does not shy away from the causes of shortcomings in social care services.
The book provides a thorough analysis of the state of social care for children and young people in Ireland now, but readers outside of Ireland will recognise and find relevance in the matters the book raises for it covers in some depth so many of the issues which exercise all those concerned with social care today wherever they may be, including, healthy child development for children in care, children’s rights, children’s and young people’s experience of social care, professionalism, social pedagogy, relationship-based practice, resilience, attachment theory, research issues, policy-making and its concomitant economic and political restraints, among many more. I may have quibbles about some of the arguments put forward in this book but I cannot deny that it reflects much of contemporary thought and opinion. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably it does not immerse itself in history but plants itself in the present and looks to the future. This book should be read by social care practitioners, social care students, social care teachers, managers, policy-makers and politicians. It has already been added to my list of recommended reading.
There is little doubt that those involved with the social care and welfare of children and young people all over the world are still working under the shadow cast by the exposure in recent years of the serious abuse suffered by many children and adults (in Ireland the adults were mainly women) who lived in various kinds of institutions during the 20th century. At the risk of not being as well informed as I should be, and certain that the abuse of the residents of institutions is not solely an Irish or Roman Catholic issue, it must seem particularly galling in a relatively new state to have a spotllight focused on it as a consequence of the cruel treatment suffered by many of its vulnerable children and adults in the decades when Ireland was establishing the ideal of its independent state. Even more disappointing that much of this abuse was carried out in establishments whose role was to provide care, and particularly so when the culture of that country was still infused by its historic and present links to the Roman Catholic Church. This is not to single out a particular creed, for none can claim innocence, but the real issue is that Christian creeds, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and others claim to be based on love, trust and kindly service. Their leaders ask followers to trust that altruistic love is at the heart of any institutions associated with them. In Ireland as in other places that trust was betrayed and it may still take many years to wash the bitter taste of disappointment and despair out of the system of the national psyche. This may especially be the case if unresolved issues remain and if people still wait for justice to be done. Otherwise, how can we forgive? It would be all too easy to begin to think the time has come to sweep any remaining inconveniences under the carpet and some critics suggest this is what is being done. It will be uneasy reading for some when in a recent essay written by as distinguished an Irish author as Anne Enright suggests that when reading the recent Macaleese Report about the Magdelene Laundries, she felt she ‘was chasing the sense that something is missing, that you are trapped within a paternalist paradox: I am in charge, therefore you are fine” (Enright, 2015).
In the meantime those involved with social care in Ireland have the onerous task of creating and sustaining a service which is effective and deserving of trust. Some will disagree, but the author may have been wise to largely eschew the past, not get dragged down by it, and to focus on the present and the future of social care. In this sense Social Care and Child Welfare in Ireland Integrating Residential Care, Leaving Care, And After Care together with the 2014 publication Social Care Learning from Practice edited by Noel Howard and Denise Lyons to which Fenton contributed offer a brand new start.
Maurice Fenton has written a superbly researched, informative and insightful book. To accompany his declared mission to develop a seamless child and youth care, and after care service Fenton provides an informative and insightful account of how this task may be carried out and his book must represent the most comprehensive and detailed representation of the current state of Irish Social Care. Fenton deals with so many aspects of care and does not shrink from tackling the political and economic forces which seek to constrain necessary services. This review cannot represent all the issues which Fenton covers with the credit they deserve . Allow me at least to mention some and then I will consider aspects of the book which particularly absorbed my interest. The book has sections on practice and lived experience, residential child care, social care theory, children’s rights and policies, research, rethinking residential care and aftercare. Variously contained in these sections are, among others, chapters about myths surrounding residential child care, about social pedagogy, about attachment theory and social policy. This book should be essential reading for those developing policy, those teaching social care, students of social care but most importantly those who are practitioners. They are so often kept in the dark about how policy is made and how research on their practice is carried out.
The book begins with two personal accounts which are adaptations of some of the author’s previous pieces of writing, but in the context of the content and structure of this book this re-examination proves worthwhile. The first of these is told by an adult, Keith who is looking back on his childhood experience of being in care. Accounts like these are always useful to social care workers and to students who may be considering a career in social care. They highlight and question many of the assumptions and presumptions social workers and carers make and act upon, that, on the face of things, seem sensible things to do when attempting to get to the truth of matters with the intention of moving them on, but which, when they are acted upon, prove devastating for the child. Keith describes a meeting he was asked to attend while he was living at a residential child care centre where Maurice Fenton was his keyworker.
I was called into the room in the centre and my mother, the social worker and Maurice were there. I don’t remember if anyone else was in attendance.I remember basically being asked was my mother an alcoholic. I remember the fear, the sadness of this question. I felt I was put in an impossible and traumatising situation. Yes, my mother was an alcoholic; yes, I hated her drunken behaviour but I loved her deeply. I never wanted to go against my mother, nor did I want to embarrass her in front of these people. Plus I didn’t know whether my statement might result in my younger siblings being taken into care. The weight of that question was so heavy for me as a child I would say it crushed me completely. I gave the social worker the answer he wanted and I remember my mother looking at me in disbelief, as much as to say,” how could you?”, while at the same time giving excuses for her drinking. More or less immediately after the magical question was asked and answered, the meeting ended the social worker got up and left without saying anything else to me, and soon after so did my mother. I recall leaving the building without even saying goodbye. (p20).
Keith’s narrative is informative and moving but so is Maurice’s (Maurice Fenton’s) chapter ‘Worker’s Story: the Impossible Task?’. It is a personal account of his passage from residential child care worker through to residential child care manager. Once I had read these two opening chapters I found it a useful exercise to refer back and forth between the two of them and it was impressive to discover significant synergy.
It is always good to read authors who know their field through and through. What is also good is that even if good people are writing about the same thing, for example, residential child care, their account is always unique and always sheds light on new areas. What was refreshing about reading ‘Worker’s Story: the Impossible Task?’ is the sense it gives of being in the presence of someone who is anxious to get things right and not get things wrong, though not principally in his own interests, but in the child’s. This quality is the essence of a good residential child care worker. The reader becomes aware, as Maurice thinks about and goes about his task establishing a relationship with a child, of his vulnerability as a worker in a setting where risks of an ever changing nature abound. Paradoxically his vulnerability does not come over in any sense as a weakness but more it gives a sense to the enormity of his responsibilities set against his capacity, as Winnicott would say, to be ‘good-enough’.
Fenton remembers that in developing a relationship with a young man his own vulnerability became therapeutically helpful.
One day he was in discussion with Paul, a young man who had not lived in the centre for very long. He was a tall, well-built boy and Maurice had been asked by colleagues to talk with Paul for there was a concern that he was intimidating the other residents. Paul and Maurice were in the hallway of the residential centre and both simultaneously looked at a large mirror on the wall. Maurice remembers,
…. whilst looking into it I thought to myself how large he looked by comparison to me, as I’m no more than 5 feet ten inches tall.
Spontaneously, I had said that right then I was conscious that he was clearly larger than me and capable of ‘putting me through the wall with a punch” if he chose to do so. Therefore I explained that I was experiencing him as potentially threatening due to my sense of vulnerability…………..To my immense surprise, whilst still looking in the mirror, he said to me, “but that’s not what I feel inside I only feel like this size” (here he put his hand to his midriff)……..”I am this way because I have to be.” I knew he was revealing an insight into his inner self as, given his background and what he had been exposed to, he had been forced to fend for himself in the most effective way he could just to survive. (pp 40-41}
Reflecting later on this in supervision the author came to see that a ‘vulnerability’ exchange had taken place and this engagement and this resolution no doubt formed the basis of what would become a good relationship.
This example persuades me that this chapter is one of the – if not the – most important in the book. Fenton demonstrates how spontaneous engagements can be therapeutic and that by reflection with another person in supervision insight can be gained. No need here to look for a theory or the statistical results of ten research papers to justify pointing out the therapeutic nature of Maurice’s conversation with Paul. My point here is if persons are unique then ipso facto relationships between human beings are unique and though research is helpful we should not let it blind us to our own experience. Sciences, social and pure, have not as yet in any meaningful way engaged with the entity that is a complete human being. Of course empiric research can give us enlightening information, and there is little doubt that applied science using scientific theory has improved the life experience of many in many ways.
Apropos these observations I would guide all readers to the two chapters dealing with research,’Research in Care and Aftercare’ and ‘An Alternative Research Construct’ Practitioners in particular should know more about the way social care research is carried out and what its weaknesses are. There is an implication that quantitative research carries more weight than qualitative research. My own view is that if either is to be used qualitative research is better since it can bear within it uniquely personal experience. Of course quantitative research with its huge collection of numbers is what interests the political power holders who drive the policymakers., but numbers carry nothing of the personal and can be interpreted in ways most suited to a particular political purpose. I feel this is what Fenton is saying, more diplomatically than I, in his final remarks of the chapter ‘An Alternative Research Construct.’
All in all it can be concluded that qualitative research approaches are not contributing significantly to aftercare pedagogy, practice culture and policy-making in the Republic of Ireland. Indeed there is ample reason to suggest that qualitative research has not in fact reached its full potential in any of the care fields. Perhaps a time may come soon when the research economy of scales will re-adjust as it is realised by policy-makers that quantitative data alone are not adequate for the task when considering relationships between human beings. For their part , workers need to write for publication, both to meet the needs of those they represent and to develop a body of knowledge to challenge dominant paradigms. (p 245)
I was disappointed that little consideration was given in the book to the planned environment movement, therapeutic communities, opportunity led work, and the life space interview, all of which are psychodynamically based and fundamentally founded upon relationships. However Fenton understands the establishment and sustaining of a relationship between a child and an adult to be the core essential of social care. It is dealt with in some depth throughout the book for instance when he is discussing attachment theory, social pedagogy and as we have seen when he is considering new constructs for research, but my own feeling is that in the chapter in which he explores the nature of resilience,’Attachment Theory, Resilience, Focal Theory and Learning’ more emphasis might have been placed on linking relationships and resilience. A child builds resilience as a consequence of good relationships and another of my own prejudices is that the development of resilience too often becomes an aim in itself when so much else needs to be in place before it can grow healthily. Paul’s healthy resilience was born when Maurice gave Paul space to acknowledge his vulnerability and so offered the potential for a relationship to be established.
Maurice took a big risk then. Risk is inherent in ‘project social care’. In residential child care, what seems to be a very common sense decision can, as Fenton illustrates in this book, be the wrong one. Nevertheless for any child to grow healthily, risks must be taken if she or he is to navigate life’s rites of passage, but looked after children and young people are so much more at risk coming as they do from fragile and often dysfunctional backgrounds. They are not as safe as their peers who live in their functioning families, yet returning again to Chapter 2, the reader is re-assured that these potential dangers are doused by the determination of Maurice, the residential child care worker, to try to cover all the angles. (In a sense ‘covering all the angles’ is what the author is trying to do in this book). It is Maurice’s commitment, presence, sincerity and desire to develop and sustain a real relationship with Keith that communicates a sense of safety. The social worker and his mother may have left him in a state of distress on the day of the meeting, but as Keith remembers,
“ My only state of grace for that moment in time was Maurice. I do remember him sitting with me afterwards until I stopped sobbing while every other adult disappeared.” (p20)
This is a book whose content is relevant far beyond Ireland. Its learning, humanity, comprehensive thoroughness, and emotional insight gives the reader so much. I recommend this book to all involved in the social care of children and young people.
Enright, A. (1915) “Antigone in Galway” in London Review of Books Vol. 37 No.4 pp11-14 (17th December, 2017).
Howard,N. & Lyons, D. (eds., 2014) Social Care Learning from Practice Dublin, Gill & Macmillan
John Molloy comments :
I read your review of Maurice Fenton’s book. The Aftercare scene here [in Ireland] is getting worse not better! I am sure you are familiar with the ever increasing numbers of homeless families here in Ireland. Every month a new record is set. We have long ago surpassed previous record numbers of the 1980’s and 1950’s. There is a massive housing shortage and rents are rising constantly to the point where many cannot afford to pay. Young people leaving residential and foster care have no chance of getting private rented accommodation because landlords will not accept welfare cheques. Some residential centres are being log-jammed because they cannot move over 18’s on. Our kids are on the bottom pile.
Recently we admitted a boy a few months past his 17th birthdate. We have since been told that he will not be eligible for aftercare when he turns 18. When we challenged this we were told of a regulation that states the young person must spend a full year in residential or foster care to be entitled to aftercare. When asked to explain the thinking behind this we were told that if everyone was entitled to aftercare then there would be a rush of young people wanting to be in care!
That comment apparently came from a Government Minister.
In the meantime we opened an aftercare or “transition Housing” project. This is an unsupervised home where 4 over-eighteen year olds live in what is called a “a congregational setting”. The emphasis I am placing is that the model is geared to emphasise peer-support to get around problems of loneliness, support networking etc. Strangely enough I am finding that the young people are resistant to this in some ways leading me to think that they would prefer to live in a more regimented Children’s Home type model. There is no winning!
Maurice Fenton the author of the book Social Care and Child Welfare in Ireland Integrating Residential Care, Leaving Care, And After Care which is the subject of this review has sent us this response to John Molloy’s comments,
John, you identify a very grave problem for care leavers and indeed many others, including many families with young children, in Ireland. This is certainly one of the most serious social problems of recent times and when Fr Peter McVerry and Sr Stan echo what you say in that they have never witnessed the homeless issue at such levels in all their years championing the causes of the homeless then it is clear that we have an unprecedented problem. Without a home it is impossible for a care leavers to thrive This issue amongst many others is identified in my book and I’m unequivocal in my position that “ a service made available solely on the basis of chronological age and employment or training status is not fit for purpose”. Despite many improvements to the aftercare service, especially in the past decade, we have the worrying situation that whilst the organisational service structure are improving and despite the efforts of many dedicated aftercare workers the actual living circumstances of many care leavers is not improving and indeed in some cases, as you illustrate, deteriorating. We need visibility as to quality of service as well as quantity. I maintain that the overarching problem is the inherent social injustice in this service. There are many failings that arise as a result of this injustice such as failings in mental health support, educational attainment, unemployment, high levels of participation in the sex trade, homelessness, incarceration, suicide, loneliness and others but the underpinning issue that must be resolved is the absence of social justice. If this is in place, I argue that from this secure base improvements will grow just as they have in the four neighbouring states in the UK.
I write that assumptions underpin much that is wrong with social care and the child care system and I illustrate how the former undeserving child of the 19th and mid to late 20th century has become recast as the irresponsible (but still perceived by many professionals as the undeserving) child under the pernicious influence of neoliberalism in recent decades. One case in particular that I write about resonates with the point you make where a Government minister says that it is the fear that some young people will attempt to subvert the system by coming into care before 18 to access aftercare support, again based on the concept of their being deserving/undeserving. In the book I highlight a recent statement by the CEO of The Child and Family Agency in response to a parliamentary question where he states that enhanced aftercare support will be made available to all care levers, including those not in education, but that “they (care leavers) will at that stage (age 18) be adults and there will be no free rides”. I believe this speaks to the assumptions at senior management level in The Child and Family Agency and political level (including the civil service) that there are those undeserving young people who will seek to exploit the system via ‘free rides’ as free loaders, and consume resources intended for the deserving children those who will more likely utilise the resources to best, and quantifiable, effect. As I contend in the book, this may be a root cause of the resistance to implement statutory entitlement to aftercare support over many years in the Republic. To challenge this uninformed and harmful assumption I conducted a basic cost / benefit analysis of how much currency is being spent on aftercare in the Republic, How much it would cost to implement a statutory service based on the service available in Northern Ireland and finally how much such a change would benefit the state in future years financially? What this illustrates is that such a change need not cost any more than is currently being spent but that the benefits if such a change would be in the order of billions of euro over the life course of the current cohort of care leavers and incalculable in terms of human wellbeing and the breaking of cycles of generational entry into care.
I conclude the main body of my book with a challenge to the reader to resist assumption and preconception and cite Professor James Anglin who gave me the advice to “question everything and stay curious” which in my opinion is the soundest of advice which will lead to better outcomes for children in care and care levers if followed.
So if Government ministers and senior management of The Child and Family Agency believe that there are undeserving children and young people who will seek to exploit the system this must be challenged if we are to see real change as otherwise we have a continuation of what we have had for the past two decades which is aimed as much at protecting the system as meeting the needs of this the system is there to serve.
This same rhetoric plays out for those within the system also where care leavers who do not participate in education or training are deemed to be undeserving and are ineligible for meaningful aftercare support as allegedly, again according to the CEO of The Child and Family Agency, current legislation only empowers the Agency to support this in education and training. This despite numerous previous Government ministers and senior Social Services leaders as well as the Irish Attorney General stating that the legislation was sufficiently robust. Someone is being economical with the truth.
It is tragic that in the 21st century we still have rhetoric from the Dickensian era influencing our social services.